How should parents and teachers talk to children after terrorist attacks?

PUBLISHED: 08:53 24 May 2017

Floral tributes left by Manchester Town Hall after a suicide bomber killed 22 people leaving a pop concert at the Manchester Arena on Monday night. Picture: BEN BIRCHALL/PA WIRE

Floral tributes left by Manchester Town Hall after a suicide bomber killed 22 people leaving a pop concert at the Manchester Arena on Monday night. Picture: BEN BIRCHALL/PA WIRE

Advice has been issued to parents and teachers on how they should respond to children’s questions and behaviour in the event of a terrorist attack.

It comes after the Manchester terror attack on Monday night. Students will be asking questions, talking among themselves, and talking with families. Schools cannot ignore events, however controversial and disturbing it is to raise them. The following tips have been issued by Connect Futures.

1. The first thing is groundwork. Schools need to feel prepared. It is useful if they have already had discussion among staff using real or imagined case studies of violence (Far Right, Islamist, animal rights, lone wolves). It is important that there is school unity, and support for teachers who want to discuss issues in the classroom or in form time. Some schools will suspend their curriculum to talk across the school about a current event, or will develop a specific assembly.

2. What should I do if I am worried about a child who seems vulnerable? There is a scale of action, from informal conversation through to referral to authorities. Firstly, it is best to try to open up dialogue, not being judgmental but trying to find out what is behind the worrying behaviour. Young people often want to explore issues, for example talking about politics or religion – this is a positive thing. Former extremists often tell us that parents should try to keep the lines of talking open, try to listen, and tackle the tricky questions together. The idea is to help young people learn and grow, while building resilience to negative ideas and arguments. Talk to your child’s teachers, youth workers, community organisations and other parents – there are always people to get advice and support from.

3. Schools can find ways to embed events in existing learning. It sounds cynical to say you can turn an outrage into a ‘teachable moment’, but the question is whether or how it can fit into existing strands of learning. Discussion in PSHE can revolve round what turns people to violence. Is violence ever acceptable? What are other ways to create change? This can link to work on fundamental British values and mechanisms for democratic change.

4. Children will experience a sense of fear, but also powerlessness. What can young people do? If there were a natural disaster such as an earthquake, they can raise money. With a human-inspired catastrophe, there are still victims, but these may be wider and more indirect than those targeted. After an extreme Islamist terrorism attack, there can be an increase in Islamophobia or general racism. Children can be warned that they may hear racist/Islamophobic/negative remarks and can be encouraged to dispute them if appropriate or safe to do so. It is important children know who they can talk to in a safe space. Do you have policies in place? Are your staff confident talking about these issues? It’s important that solutions remain part of a school’s overall programme of acting against hate and violence.

5. Although the general principle is discussion and encouraging questions from students, there has to be care with replaying an event and causing undue shock. A recent case was of a teaching assistant who criticised her primary school showing graphic scenes of 9/11, with bodies falling from the building. She was dismissed, but won her case for unfair dismissal. Such videos have the obvious capacity to upset and frighten children, implying that the same could happen here. Teachers should try to reassure children that such attacks are isolated, but teachers cannot promise to keep children safe.

6. Linked to this is media analysis and social media imagery – looking at what the media are seizing on (for example when they go straight to the perpetrator being a ‘Muslim convert’ instead of narrating the real complexity of their lives). After the Westminster attack, some papers showed a highly cropped picture, which seemed to highlight a Muslim girl just walking past, on her phone. Pan out and you see many other people in the frame who were passing by, with everyone unable to help, and with medics already surrounding the body.

Graham White, the Suffolk NUT national representative, issued the following advice to teachers and parents to pass on to children:

• It is very important that we treat everyone with respect and kindness. We must be tolerant of other people’s views, even though we may not agree with them.

• We need to be compassionate. We need to share religious beliefs and cultures with others so we better understand how others live. These may be very different to ours.

• There is a lot of war and conflict in the world and we need to strive to resolve these conflicts by talking.

• At school we do not resolve conflict by hitting out. We talk it through.

• The world can be harsh and there are areas of the world where children are targeted. As a result of that conflict, they try to leave that country. These people are refugees and we need to give them safety and security.

• Not everyone is nice. Some people do awful things and that is why we have prisons.

• Do not worry about what has happened. Your teachers, parents, family and adults will look after you. If you have any worries then talk to the adult you trust most.

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